In 'Feed Your Pet Right,' Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim Offer Pet Food Guide

The recall exposed previously hidden links between pet foods and the human food supply. Pet foods could no longer be considered as a tiny but profitable niche market. Instead, it was evident that pet foods are part of a global network for producing food for people and for farm animals, as well as for cats and dogs. We all share one interconnected food supply.

This means that anyone who cares about the safety and quality of food for people, pets, or other animals also needs to care about how pet foods are made, used, and monitored. Indeed, the implications of the recall are so profound that one of us (Nestle) ended up telling its story in a separate book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (University of California Press, 2008).

WHAT ARE PET FOODS?

Let's begin by visiting the pet food aisle of a good-sized supermarket. In the summer of 2008, for example, the Wegmans supermarket in Ithaca, New York, devoted both sides of an entire 120-foot aisle to pet foods and products. We estimated that this took up 13 percent of the store's centeraisle space, roughly the same proportion devoted to sodas. The shelves rose six feet above the floor, and each was packed with cans, pouches, and bags of foods, treats, and chews in sizes ranging from three-ounce cans of cat food to forty-pound bags of dog kibble. We counted out the number of four-foot sections, multiplied them by the number of shelves, and came up with 328 linear feet of shelf space devoted to cat foods, and 395 feet to dog foods -- more than 700 linear feet of supermarket real estate devoted to these products.

As is true of most pet food aisles, dog food takes up more space than cat food. Although Americans own many more cats than dogs -- 94 million compared to 78 million -- dogs eat more than cats, and owners tend to spend more money on food and treats for them.

At the time, Wegmans carried several leading brands produced by major pet food companies, along with its own favorably priced, private-label Bruiser dog food and Buju & Ziggie cat food brands. Choosing from any such array of products is a daunting task. Price is only one of many considerations. Manufacturers design pet foods for a large number of particular purposes, each aimed at a particular market segment.

The most important distinction is between complete-and-balanced foods and snacks or treats. Commercial pet foods share much in common with infant formulas. They provide complete nutrition in one convenient package. If you follow the feeding directions, the food takes care of your pet's requirements for calories and all essential nutrients. In contrast, snacks and treats have some nutritional value but are incomplete and need to be supplemented with foods that contain all of the nutrients required by a cat or dog.

Within the complete-and-balanced category, you can select from among foods that differ in form or price; are targeted to an animal's stage of life, breed, or health condition; meet your expectations for ingredient quality; are consistent with your personal values about diet, nutrition, or the environment; or do or do not contain supplements aimed at relieving disease symptoms. We talk about each of these market segments in subsequent chapters.

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